Theatre Three’s production of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark is set in the world of 1920s cinema, and forces us to examine the limited roles that black actors continue to play almost 80 years later.
Making its North Texas debut at Theatre Three, the drama takes place in a pre-code 1920’s Hollywood. Vera Stark works as a maid for her long-time friend, white actress Gloria Mitchell. Tired of being typecast and offered only nonspeaking roles because of her race, Stark goes for a supporting role, ironically enough, as a maid. Against the odds she lands the part and is considered a breakout star. Her subsequent success helps pave the way for black performers in film. The play’s second act takes place about 40 years later at a college panel discussing the rise and fall of Stark’s career, the racial politics that surrounded her life, and her disappearance from the public eye.
Yolonda Williams plays Vera Stark, and Calvin Roberts plays Stark’s love interest, Leroy Barksdale. Both say they have deep connections to the themes explored in the story. They both see their characters’ struggles as not too far from their own.
“It’s a great story,” says Williams, a 30-year veteran of Theatre Three. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”
“This is the first show I’ve worked on that deals with this subject matter,” says Roberts. “I’ve worked on shows that have dealt with race, but not in this way, and not so close to home.”
Meet Vera Stark is relatively new, written in 2011 by Lynn Nottage, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined. The off-Broadway production of Vera Stark received some high-profile accolades, including a Drama Desk nomination. Williams says it’s a credit to Theatre Three that it’s staging the play in a season full of new plays.
“I love this theatre, she says. “I love people who have a global way of thinking, who have a progressive way of thinking.” It recognizes, she says, “there’s other people in the world that have something to say.”
African-American actors are still offered a limited choice of roles. Both Roberts and Williams have had firsthand experience.
Williams recalls one particular commercial audition. “Usually as a woman of color, I’m always the sidekick to a real cutesy white girl. When I got to the set, they had hired me to be the one who was screaming.” Because she’d been so conditioned to being in the background, “I was the lead and didn’t know it.”
Roberts says he had an unusual moment of identification with the character: “It’s funny, I did a little quiz the other day with some co-workers. One of the questions they asked was which fictional character do you identify the most with? And I chose Vera Stark.”
Williams agrees with this sentiment. She says, “Vera represents not just the black women but black men who were equally if not more talented that could have done more stuff.”
Roberts went on to emphasize how closely he identifies with these characters, “Because as an actor, as a black actor in Dallas, I think it’s hard a lot of the time for us to get the type of work that we want to get.” There are certain roles that African-Americans are slotted into, he says. “But I feel like we want to break out of that and want to do bigger things, larger things.”
Such experiences, such emotions, informed how their performances. In the play, Leroy Barksdale pushes Vera toward breaking racial boundaries and stereotypes and going for bigger, more prominent roles in movies.
“It’s been deceptively simple,” playing a character who has had to fight for so much in his life, says Roberts. “But when you think about it, it’s a bit more complicated because I think one of the things I was trying to explore was his anger and where that anger came from and how that evolved.”
The reverse is true as well, he says: Roberts brought the lessons he’s learned from working on this character to his own life. “I think [Leroy] fought for what he believed in and what he wanted to do for his career and his success, and that’s what I have to do in my life, if I want something, if I want to get to a certain level, I’m going to have to fight for it and never give up.”
As for Williams, she says she looked to other black actresses to better understand the kind of struggles a woman like Vera Stark would go through. While Vera Stark is not a historical figure, she is based on the lives and careers of many overlooked performers of color who’ve had similar struggles. Actors like Hattie McDaniels, the first African-American to win an Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind, or actors in blacksploitation films, like William Marshall of Blacula fame or even actors today like Lupita Nyong’o, the seventh African-American woman to win an Oscar. For all of them, race has been a restrictive factor in getting work.
So Vera Stark may be set in the ‘20s, but it is not a period piece, and it’s not an exercise in nostalgia. It’s about acting as a foil to the here and now.